The making of Swans‘ Soundtracks For The Blind
By A.D. Amorosi
Photo by Tamara Rafkin
Born from the jolting, speedy clutter that was New York City’s no-wave movement of the early, dirty ’80s, Michael Gira’s Swans were cuttingly abrasive in their sonic locution and lyrical force. Swans were no mess, though. Their roar was succinct and surging, their pace often blinding, and Gira’s attack, though brooding, was riveting and blunt—he was a sharp-shooting sniper, not a bullet-spraying machine gunner. To this rapier-fast, roaring exactitude, he added scorched-earth texts that were as much about the pointed notion of rage as the music itself pointedly raged (depravity, violence and power also fit nicely into Gira’s lyrical mien).
“My interest in Swans—what attracted me, I would still argue in their currency—is intensity,” says Bill Rieflin, one of a dozen past-and-present Swans. “I was an intense young man in those days myself.”
Fast and raging is a rough pace to maintain, though—even for a young man, a young woman (haunting, self-titled “buzz-cut athletic, non-drinking vegetarian” co-lead singer Jarboe) and an ever-shifting crew of young, schooled, inventive primal musicians—over the course of five-plus years; and by 1987, a bicameral sound process set in, a sonic architecture was erected. “One of the things I always loved playing in Swans is that it never stays the same,” says longtime guitarist Norman Westberg. “It is evolving, as well as adapting to its changing players. Michael never stands still.”
1987 double album Children Of God found Swans embracing sparkling tonic tones, subtle softness and nuanced elegance; a shimmering orchestral or ambient quietude that came to co-define Swans’ hard, bumpy ride from small labels (PVC, Caroline) to its unfortunate moment with the majors (MCA?!?) and back again to utter independence (Gira’s own Young Gods).
“I was utterly exhausted, man,” says Gira, considering the holy, scabrous, psychic trip of nine cold Swans albums between 1982 and 1995, to say nothing of his World Of Skin project with Jarboe, work on her solo albums (three between 1993 and 1996), his own solo effort (1995’s Dreamland) and recordings for Pigface and Lydia Lunch.
“Going through the process of my own label (starting with 1991’s White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity) allowed me freedom to do anything I want,” says Gira, adding, of course, “not that other labels had editorial control—except for that horrible circumstance with MCA. Once I had my own label, the freedom was absolute, but I also had the absolute financial responsibility in regards to the conscience of my decisions, the consequences. Those aspects had an influence over everything I did going forward. Then again, I probably just threw it all out the window, adapted and did what I wanted.”
Absolute freedom and utter exhaustion: What better moment in which to introduce the breathtaking Soundtracks For The Blind, Swans’ two-LP masterpiece from 1996 and the last album to feature Swans’ name until Gira’s soft sculptural de-constructivist rejuvenation of said band name in 2010. Wider and craggier than the Grand Canyon, as epic in scope and testament as the St. James Bible, as weirdly and quirkily diverse as the Beatles’ White Album—that’s the description I gave to producer/multi-instrumentalist Rieflin, who said, “Yeah, that about wraps Soundtracks up nicely,” he says with a soft laugh. “Plus, it seems to go on for-fucking-ever. It’s as if it never ends.”
With Gira removed from his cherished Lower East Side roots and relocated in Atlanta, Soundtracks For The Blind’s credits read “combined, collaged, manipulated and EQ’ed at Griffin Mastering, Atlanta GA.” That’s because Soundtracks was hardly straight-ahead, cobble-10-guys-into-a-studio-and-roar type material. It was knitted together quickly like a ghoulish, gorgeous AIDS quilt for a patient quickly dying. It was compiled like a family album filled with torn photo memories and newly emotional relationships. When you weren’t busy being balmed, then bruised by the loud, then lush “The Sound” and “The Helpless Child,” you were concentrating on the taped spoken interludes of “I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull” and how they related to Swans’ rush of sound.
“A motivation to incorporate multiple sound sources is a method that came naturally to us both as we had a long history with this technique,” says Jarboe, recalling both Swans’ Love Of Life and Gira’s Drainland. “As for Soundtracks, other than the finished songs recorded in studio, my own role within the process of its ‘architecture’ was providing source material.”
Gira’s original album notes claim Soundtracks’ song sources as “hand-held cassette recordings to found sounds, to samples, to loops, to finished multitrack recordings.” Produced with his usual un-grouping of differing musicians, with heavy input from Jarboe, this two-LP project—one disc named “Copper” and the other “Silver”—moves through its elements as would any alchemist looking to spin his own self-made gold. Brazen industrial skronk, tempered acoustic-guitar folk, humming winded ambience, Branca-esque scrawls, moist drones and the textural influence of the field recording—Alan Lomax’s treasured gift to rural musicality—all make Soundtracks For The Blind buoyantly cinematic, boldly alien and deeply Swans-y.
“I can’t rate it, no,” says Gira, wearily, of Soundtracks, which makes sense.
”It’s 20 years ago, and who can remember every element of an album put together such as that,” says Rieflin. “I listened to it yesterday in anticipation of this interview, and I’m still not always certain where I am on that album.”
Plus, Gira’s far busier contemplating the end of this most recent version of Swans after its upcoming 18-month tour for its new album, The Glowing Man. “I can see and say where Soundtracks took root, though,” he says.
How Swans came to, arguably, their best, most manic work, is that between the aforementioned hard-meets-soft of Children Of God and 1992’s Love Of Life, Gira began thinking of music more in terms of its malleable sound-craft than strictly its driving, definable melody and rhythm—an Eno-esque “soundtrack” to movies existing solely in the mind of its maker.
After 1995’s stripped-to-the-bone, skull-boring The Great Annihilator (“Annihilator to me has the raw energy present on Children Of God with some truly evocative melodies in the arrangements,” says Jarboe) and during its exhaustive tour, Gira stopped using opening bands “because they were nothing but trouble,” he says. “There were bits of sounds that I had been working on alongside Annihilator’s tracks—plus I had a trove of floppy discs, cassette tapes, all with these bits and interludes that began popping up on Swans albums.”
Gira began putting thought and weight into these sometimes blissful, sometimes creepy interludes, to the point where they seemingly blossomed in importance to the “songs” themselves. “For that tour, I handed a bunch of these bits to our live sound engineer, who added dub elements to the proceedings,” he says. “Before we would play, that’s what led us into the gig, welcomed us on. I used that method on Soundtracks to organize it.” Combined with a longtime love of all things Eno and Berlin-period Bowie, sound, rather than lyric, melody or pulse, led the charge for Gira’s compositional/production endgame. “Gradually that idea reached equal measure with formal song when it came to Annihilator, then Soundtracks,” he says. “Everything from Children Of God on became backdrop to films that didn’t exist. It’s just that Soundtracks would become the most … soundtracks-y.”
That Gira thinks of his music—solo, Swans—as one long process, never finished or complete, having one element recorded for one album that could easily find itself used or reused with some morphing on another, is no shock. “Every part of the music can transform, shift,” says Gira.
Rieflin was floating in and out of the devil’s pocket of industrial morass that was Ministry, Pigface and Revolting Cocks when he first got to Gira. “I had heard Swans, and knew of Gira, but hadn’t lived with their records until I was on tour, like 1991, and a writer from Alternative Press had an advance promotional cassette of White Mouth,” says Rieflin, bringing back the entirety of the ’90s with two phrases and a pristine rush. “So good. I knew then I wanted to work with Michael.” Along with being pleasantly surprised that Gira was not a sad-sack/lone-gunman type, Rieflin confirms that Gira was not only a great producer but that he knew how to get a high yield—more bang for his buck—with the drummer/multi-instrumentalist recording for eight-hour sessions at a shot with its outcome not always geared to one particular song.
“We would do a lot of work in a very short period of time,” says Rieflin. “He’s very high information, and we’d get a lot out of each other.” Where some of their bits went was up to Gira, who by 1995 into 1996 was feeling the strains of the business of being Swans.
“How did we change by 1995, 1996?” asks the ethereal Jarboe, who by that time had developed into a ghost chanteuse whose dynamics (and fan base) were as mighty and laudable as Gira’s. “I’d say that Michael best expressed it in the lyrics to ‘Feel Happiness,’ where he talks about forgiving indifference. In many ways, the story of Swans involves persistence in the face of adversity. As for the impact on me personally, all changes by that point only enhanced in me a sense of discipline and an attitude of determination.” What she calls “touring by trial” for years, where everyone smoked and drank (“except me”), surely took its toll on all concerned, Gira—the founder and financier—in particular.
“I felt defeated, as I had put every little last piece of energy into it—it had gone on at that point for 16 years—and it hadn’t really seen all that much success,” says Gira of the post-Annihilator-tour Swans. “There was always this conflict to find the money to record, to tour, to survive, to put out albums that were way beyond my capacity financially, probably technically as well.” Going forward, he wanted to do something simpler—at least on the face of it— and challenge himself to write music that was centered around a narrative, “some basic songs rather than these huge improbable soundtrack compositions.”
So Soundtracks For The Blind would be newly recorded and stitched together—a gorgeous Frankenstein—as Swans’ swan song. They would, however, go out with a bang.
There are roaring band songs and humming tracks such as “Red Velvet Wound” and the wry, homemade “Volcano.” The spooky chanteuse has a funny story to tell about “Hypogirl,” which she claims was performed under particularly unusual circumstances. “The song begins with the sound of me having to get into character instantly as I had a commitment that night taking care of someone who needed me,” says Jarboe. “So I drove to the studio as quickly as I could, did the song and drove back. The sound you hear first is me reacting after I shot back old whiskey belonging to my father. I had grabbed it going out the door when Michael called me to the studio to sing. It was literally speed to the studio, shoot back strong whiskey, perform that vocal, drive back home as fast as I can.”
It is, however, Soundtracks’ lost-and-found elements, its haunting interludes and pre-taped, ancient texts, that drive what Gira calls its sonic encyclopedic feel. “The overarching impetus behind Soundtracks was built as a whole world apart from, but based upon, whatever means I had at our disposal without any prejudice in regard to the material,” says Gira. “It could be new loops, old tapes, all just make this immersive universe exist.”
Rieflin laughs when he discusses his role, then and now, based upon Gira’s directive. “I do what is needed,” he says, his job within Swans closer to that of a producer and singular in that regard as he isn’t pared to one sound or instrument but rather whatever sounds he deems necessary. “If a song needed violin, I did that. If it’s piano, more than likely it’s all me.” When I mention how lovely those quickly flitting pianos lines often are throughout Soundtracks, he laughs and says, “Nothing wrong with pretty.” In surveying his overall Swans gig, Rieflin likes to joke, “I’m like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction, the Wolf. I do all the dirty jobs, clean up the mess, do exactly what is necessary at that exact time.”
Some of the elements used to build the bigger whole of Soundtracks were small, simple, but crucial atmospheres provided by Jarboe on songs such as “Surrogate 2,” chunks she created: “My own cassettes of sounds with a 16-second, electro-harmonic digital delay” for use during Swans shows as early as 1984, barely a year into her first tour of duty. Then there were the more intimate found sounds, such as personal recordings from Jarboe and Gira’s families—fathers, in particular—that cut, and infect, like a rusty knife.
“Michael and I were both going through the decline of a parent,” says Jarboe. “This was a significant aspect of our lives, and, indeed, aging parents who become ill is a significant part of the lives of many others.” Gira points out that Jarboe’s pop was an FBI agent who, when he died in 1980, became the source for a wealth of surveillance tapes—not just of criminals under his gaze but of his daughter as she got ready to go out to school or to concerts. “There was one we used on Soundtracks where he taped her talking about wanting to be in a band,” says Gira. “There’s tapes where she is talking about her mom who fell ill to dementia. These tapes inspired me to create a narration in sound.”
Gira’s father, Robert, weaves his own tale throughout Soundtracks, capturing as it does the elder Gira’s latter life.
“We had a contentious relationship during my youth, as I was a pretty rebellious teenager,” he says. “We didn’t speak—he was out of my life—for about 12 years. I wanted to get to know him again without the tension of the earlier years. He was a great man, though. I wanted to capture that as he went through the process of going blind.” Hence, a soundtrack for the blind with texts from the past cross-faded, cut-up, looped and swollen with ambient drones or swelling, spider-glass-shattered guitars.
“Our personal field recordings used on Soundtracks gave both a true soundtrack feel and provide a document of our lives,” says Jarboe. “And I also believe listeners have a deep experience because of this.”
Like a film editor, Gira served a dynamic function by looking at what scene came before and what came after, piecing everything together to create a stirring narrative. “I had to balance the quiet with the brash, the delicate with the noisy and make one thing work against the other,” he says. “The quiet thing sounding more incendiary when set against the loud thing. It was just me putting contradictions together … an architecture.”
Gira hasn’t listened to Soundtracks since he recorded it, but, now—along with Swans Is Dead—sees it as a great finale statement for that era of Swans. Soundtracks in his mind also formed the basis for the aesthetic behind Swans 2.0, which commenced in 2010.
“This Swans has transformed far beyond that now,” he says. “But Soundtracks was the start point.”
Gira had a funny story relating to both Soundtracks and his dark ambient drone projects of 1998, the Body Lovers and the Body Haters. From its looming vibe to its compositional éclat (to the fact that Westberg, Rieflin and Jarboe took part in the sessions), much of its found sound and sample clips could’ve been culled for Soundtracks For The Blind.
“I continued the soundscape thing—the anything went thing—with a sound archive at my disposal, a truck full of floppy discs, cassette tapes, whatever,” he says. “After I was done, I brought all of the studio-made floppies and the old cassettes to a trash heap and walked away. I wanted to start fresh, which is what I did with the Angels Of Light. But that day, it was a purely physical thing. I put them all in my van, brought them to the county dump and threw it all away.”
Both of us laugh hard at the image of a man throwing away a large chunk of his past on an ash heap. Soundtracks For The Blind is a record that makes you want to start anew.